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Will the next Keystone fight happen in New England?

Dirty business
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 8, 2012

We may have narrowly avoided Keystone XL (for now), but local environmental activists say that Maine and New England are not safe from "the dirtiest oil on earth," with a huge Canadian oil company seeking other routes to pump crude oil out of Alberta.

The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Council of Maine are holding a public talk this Thursday at the University of Southern Maine: "Stop Dirty Tar Sands Oil from Coming Through Maine." National experts will be on hand to outline the harmful effects of tar sands oil production and transmission — the same concerns that led President Barack Obama and the State Department to put the kibosh on the Keystone project.

Representatives of local environmental organizations claim that Enbridge Inc., a Canadian oil and gas company, is attempting to reverse the flow in various sections of pipeline in Canada to circumnavigate regulatory and public opposition to tar sands; those sections connect to a pipeline that runs between Portland and Montreal.

There are currently two pipelines along this route, both built in 1941 to protect oil supplies from German enemies during World War II. The underground system now pumps overseas oil from South Portland (the largest oil port on the East Coast) northward.

Starting in 2008, and in fits and starts since then, the Portland Pipeline Corporation has been looking at the economic viability of reversing one of those pipelines to accommodate flow in the other direction — were reversal to happen, and if the pipeline hooks up with various other sections between Montreal and Alberta, we could end up with heavy crude oil in our harbor.

"This proposal is another way of pumping tar sands oil from Western Canada," says Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club's Maine chapter. "The larger issue here is an attempt to get around the opposition to Keystone," Brand says.

Brand points out that the existing pipeline passes near Sebago Lake, which is the source of drinking water for most of Southern Maine. Given the extremely heavy, viscous quality of tar sands petroleum, more pressure would be needed to pump it through than for the thinner product that currently flows through the line.

"One of the major concerns for the Keystone project was the possible pollution of the giant aquifer in Nebraska and Kansas," he says. "I think we also have a similar concern here, with Sebago Lake."

For what it's worth, the treasurer of the Portland Pipeline Corporation, David Cyr, tells the Phoenix there's nothing to worry about.

"We had a proposal a couple of years ago, and that was placed on hold for economic reasons," Cyr says. "I can tell you we don't have a project today."

And if they did, the public would know about it, Cyr added. "As an organization we have prided ourselves on being good members of this community."

However, as recently as the fall of 2011, Cyr was quoted in local publications saying that Portland Pipeline was in discussions with its parent company (Montreal Pipeline Limited) regarding interest in the flow-reversal project. For its park, Enbridge spokeswoman Jennifer Varey maintains that its reversed pipeline will carry primarily light crude oil — but "will be capable of transporting a range of crude oil products."

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